Saving debate in Nevada County and beyond |

Saving debate in Nevada County and beyond

In 2007, Ben Menzies was failing English class at Nevada Union High School.

School hadn’t stimulated him as a sophomore, he said, and there weren’t many outlets for an intellectually hungry, talkative student who hadn’t yet planned his future.

“College wasn’t that important to me,” he said.

But when Menzies joined the debate team, and met the head coach — Stephen Goldberg — his school performance turned around.

“Without question, Goldberg changed my life,” he said.

Menzies was recounting his life story at an event to honor Goldberg’s 50th birthday and celebrate his 20 years as the Nevada Union debate coach. Goldberg, a full-time attorney, coaches debate for three high schools in the Sacramento area and drives an hour once a week to coach at Nevada Union.

Today, Menzies, a public policy masters student at the University of California-Berkeley, described how Goldberg inspired him to apply himself, encouraging him to attend Whitman College on a debate scholarship. Menzies even coached with Goldberg at Sacramento’s McClatchy High School before starting his graduate program.

It’s this inspiration and commitment that has pulled debaters and their parents alike deeper into their schools’ debate programs.

“I’ve never met anyone who donates their time so generously,” said Sue Muir, whose son debated at Nevada Union under Goldberg’s tutelage. What makes Goldberg special, she said, is his belief that debate should be accessible to all students, even those in rural areas.

Others, like Jeremy Morioka who helps Goldberg coach at West Campus High School in Sacramento, believes it’s the coach’s ability to personalize his teaching.

“Goldberg makes a point of examining students and making the best out of them,” said Morioka. “When you go to debate tournaments, other coaches will say the same exact thing about him.”

The West Campus coach said Goldberg stays busy as a board member of the Sacramento Urban Debate League, representative for the National Catholic Forensic League and jazz player in a band.


Saturday’s celebration was held at the Veteran’s Memorial Building in Nevada City. Balloons dangled from tables decorated in blue and turquoise tablecloth, and photos of Goldberg and his past teams hung around the room.

Former high school debaters under Goldberg, and their parents, often told stories of him saving their school’s debate teams.

In 2007, one of Nevada Union’s coaches quit, said Menzies, leaving the program teetering almost into nonexistence.

“If it weren’t for Goldberg, there would be no team right now,” he said.

Bob Spurlock, parent of a McClatchy student who debated, agreed.

“He kept the program alive,” said Spurlock.

Due to Goldberg’s continued efforts, Nevada Union is thriving. For the second consecutive year, members of its debate team are going to the national Tournament of Champions for the policy division.

Sam Hayley-Hill, a freshmen on the team during Goldberg’s first year coaching at Nevada Union in 1998, said it’s Goldberg’s determination that has led to success.

“He just donates a lot of his time to everybody,” said Hayley-Hill. That determination doesn’t always stop after his debater’s graduate.

Goldberg has played a continued role in Hayley-Hill’s life, even officiating his wedding.

Now Hayley-Hill, an English teacher and debate coach at Saint Francis High School in Mountain View, is trying to replicate his coach’s teachings by adequately preparing his debaters and treating them like adults.

“He always made us feel like we had a plan,” said Hayley-Hill.

Goldberg feels grateful for being able to donate his time to so many debate teams, particularly Nevada Union’s.

“This is a wonderful community,” he said at the event, “and it’s just been fantastic for me to be part of it for 20 years.”

Contact Sam Corey at 530-477-4219 or at

Correction: The previous article misstated the location of Saint Francis High School. It is located in Mountain View.

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